I’m not too proud to say I’ve learned a bit from Donald Trump. In particular I’ve learned about the concept of legitimacy.
Before and during his presidency, Trump had a history of making racist comments. One might be regard these as offensive, but also imagine them as having an impact limited to offending those of certain minorities, plus those who are repelled by racism, and encouraging votes from racists.
But those were not the limits to his words. By using his platform (whichever platform he had at the time) to espouse racist views he legitimised those ideas. He put those ideas out there, publicly, and so the balance of public comment and ideas was tipped slightly more towards a racist point of view. He legitimised those views (ie made them more commonplace and appear more acceptable) which in turn embolded those who previously harboured those views but who might previously have kept them more hidden.
For me, the two key words are “legimitised” and “emboldened”.
Hate crimes rose during Trump’s tenure as president (and more so where he won larger majorities). One consequence of those emboldened people was a rightwing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, during which a racist drove his car into a crowd of protestors, killing one woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 35 others.
If bad actions are left uncorrected they are legitimised, and similar actions will be repeated and will snowball.
Few of us will go on to lead a nation. But our actions are all visible to our friends and colleagues—the good actions, the bad actions, and the highly questionable actions. Whether we are leaders in our domain or participants, we set examples. We set examples by how we act, and we set examples by acting against, or not acting against, the bad actions of others. This is what creates the culture in our organisations, and where we live and work.
Unchecked bad actions give legitimacy to those actions. We need to promote the positive actions while eliminating the negative ones.